South Korea's national security chief, Chung Eui-yong, briefs US President Donald Trump at the Oval Office about his visit to North Korea, in Washington on March 8. Photo: Presidential Blue House / Yonhap via Reuters
South Korea's national security chief, Chung Eui-yong, briefs US President Donald Trump at the Oval Office about his visit to North Korea, in Washington on March 8. Photo: Presidential Blue House / Yonhap via Reuters

Media around the world have reacted with astonishment at how quickly the summit between North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and American President Donald Trump appears to have been agreed upon. However, prior to the surprise announcement on the White House lawn, there were signs – not widely reported – that something was afoot.

Kim is always probing for advantage in his dealings with Seoul and Washington and his advisors saw the environment in South Korea with the liberal Moon administration as ripe – but to be sure, other factors were also at play. For convenience, here is a brief recap of the more salient dynamics:

  • Sanctions are likely starting to bite and Kim seeks relief
  • Fear of a US military attack is high since Trump is seen as a “madman”
  • Kim is attempting to break the Seoul–Washington alliance
  • Kim is now confident that his strategic arms programs have borne fruit
  • The Moon administration and the Olympics provided an opportunity
  • Kim’s physical or mental health is affecting his judgment.

As psychologists say, behavior is frequently overdetermined; that is to say, there is generally more than one proximate cause for a person’s actions. That is likely the case with the peace overtures from the North at this time: more than one reason applies.

But even knowing the impetus does not answer the question of how the mooted summit between Trump and Kim transpired so quickly.

Back-channel preparations

In fact, it was not so sudden. The media did not connect the dots regarding events that did not get a lot of coverage.

For example, a one-sentence statement last month by the US Department of State on its site announced that Acting (and nominated to be) Assistant Secretary for Far East Asian and Pacific Affairs was traveling to Berlin to brief counterparts in Europe on issues of common concern. With European countries maintaining embassies and ambassadors in Washington, one wonders why the face-to-face meetings requiring an international trip was so necessary.

Moreover, there was a report that Trump’s National Security Advisor secretly met with officials from both South Korea and Japan in San Francisco in January. Ostensibly, the officials who attended discussed the recent political rapprochement between Pyongyang and Seoul. This is starting to sound like a back-channel communications effort.

The North sent a coterie of high-level envoys – including the deputy director of the US Division at Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry, Choe Kang Il – to the Pyeongchang Games in February. And first Daughter Ivanka Trump was accompanied by Allison Hooker, the US National Security Council’s Korea director, who was not listed as one of the American delegates.

That things are now falling into place after extensive behind-the-scenes preparation is strongly indicated by a report that Trump knew of Kim’s invitation long before it was received.

Pyongyang’s plan; Washington’s weakness

One of the North’s objectives at least as far back as 1973 has been to entangle the South in a confederation of sorts, an economic and political arrangement that Pyongyang feels would eventually lead to unification of the peninsula on its terms.

A recent report citing sources inside the reclusive North claims that Kim has abandoned the confederation plan of his grandfather and has instead developed a new unification plan based on the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement between China and Hong Kong.

But even if the policy is different, this is yet more substantiation that there has been no practical change over three generations regarding the ultimate goal of Pyongyang. That goal remains the reunification of the Korean Peninsula – a constant theme in state propaganda and amply referenced in Kim’s now-famous New Year’s broadcast.

“Deal Maker” Trump knows next to nothing about Asia in general and has little appreciation of the varied factors at play on the Korean Peninsula. While he may indeed be a shrewd negotiator, he is inexperienced when it comes to the machinations and obfuscations routinely employed by Pyongyang.

Perceived as craving success, President Trump is motivated to get a groundbreaking deal with North Korea – something that not even ersatz Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Barack Obama, not to mention any other presidential forebear, successfully accomplished.

As always, though, when one wants a deal badly enough, what one gets is a bad deal.

In view of all the media hyperbole that is running rampant these days, the words of satirical poet Lewis Carroll may be relevant:

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!

Imaginative readers can figure out which actors play which parts.

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